Alan Livingston: President of Capitol Records who launched the Beatles in America
Monday 23 March 2009
As the president of Capitol Records in America, Alan Livingston converted a relatively small record company into a major player, with a portfolio of artists that included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat “King” Cole and the Beatles.
However, his astuteness and judgements in the Beatles’ story have been exaggerated, not least by himself and indeed, by other obituary writers. Alan Livingston was born to immigrant parents in McDonald, Pennsylvania in October 1917. He and his brother, Jay, funded their further education at the University of Pennsylvania by forming a student orchestra that played at dances and other events. Alan graduated in economics and then enlisted for military service.
In 1946, Livingston joined Capitol Records and with the orchestra leader Billy May, he made a series of records for children. Sparky’s Magic Piano is fondly remembered today, while Tweety Pie’s “I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat” became a million-seller for Mel Blanc in 1951. Livingston’s biggest success was a series of storybook records about Bozo the Clown, which became a TV series.
By 1953, Frank Sinatra’s career was at a low ebb. His records for Columbia had sold poorly and he was reduced to recording mundane novelties. Livingston offered him a contract with Capitol and teamed him with the conductor and arranger, Nelson Riddle.
The first recordings, “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Young at Heart”, were magnificent and led to landmark singles and albums. Sinatra, to put it mildly, was a difficult artist who only knew one way – his own – and, in 1956, he told reporters that his own office produced and owned his recordings. Livingston retorted, “We still own every record Sinatra made at Capitol and in perpetuity.”
When Sinatra formed his own label, Reprise, in 1960, Livingston retaliated by releasing “spoilers” from the Capitol catalogue. This culminated in Sinatra suing Capitol for offering Sinatra LPs on a two-for-one basis.
Livingston was equally successful with Nat “King” Cole, who scored with Jay’s song “Mona Lisa”, but he also had to resolve the singer’s tax problems. He experienced further turbulence after signing the comedy duo Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Livingston recognised Martin’s potential as a singer, but the explosive relationship between the two talents led to many problems.
In 1955, Livingston became the third husband of Betty Hutton, an actress noted for Annie Get Your Gun and a singer he had signed to Capitol with limited success. During the time that he was married to her, Livingston moved to NBC. His biggest success was in commissioning the TV series Bonanza (1959-73), which included theme music from Jay. After divorcing Hutton in 1960, he returned to Capitol and married another actress, Nancy Olson, who had played the love interest in Sunset Boulevard.
Capitol was losing ground in the contemporary market and their rock’n’roll star, Gene Vincent, had a tendency to self-destruct. In 1962, Livingston approved the signing of a young Californian band, the Beach Boys. Despite their success, the Beach Boys presented Livingston with further problems, including having to deal with their uncompromising manager, Murry Wilson, the father of three of the group.
Although EMI was the majority shareholder in Capitol, the Capitol executives were impervious to the British owner when it came to releasing British music in America. They considered British records to be largely non-starters in the American market and, in 1961, allowed Matt Monro’s “My Kind of Girl” to be licensed to Warwick Records, where it became a US hit. They were similarly disinterested in the Beatles’ product. Swan Records of Philadelphia released “She Loves You” in 1963 and had an option on their next single.
The term “Beatlemania” had been coined to describe the frenzy caused by the Fab Four in Britain, and the group was to be launched in America early in 1964 on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The Capitol executive, Dave Dexter Jr, still had no plans to release the Beatles’ product on Capitol, and their manager, Brian Epstein, dismayed with his attitude, phoned Livingston direct. Realising that Epstein had EMI’s support, Livingston felt boxed in and he rather reluctantly overruled Dexter and persuaded Swan Records to drop their option.
Livingston agreed to release “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in America and spend $40,000 on promotion, the campaign focusing largely on the length of the Beatles’ hair. The record had a seismic impact, immediately changing the direction of the American record industry. Capitol became the biggest and most renowned US record company of the period, but still spurned many British hits, many of which were released on other labels when Capitol could have had the rights for free. They took Cilla Black and Peter and Gordon, but sidelined the Animals, the Hollies, Manfred Mann and Gerry and the Pacemakers.
Although Capitol had been pushed into releasing the Beatles, their publicity now became more garish than the British equivalent as they flooded the market with product. No one in the UK would have promoted them with tacky merchandise and furthermore, their UK albums, always well designed entities in themselves, were repackaged into artistically denuded, 10- track collections. In 1966, Livingston had to withdraw 750,000 copies of the Beatles’ collection Yesterday And Today after negative reactions to the cover shot of the band in butcher’s overalls and covered in pieces of raw meat. This was a costly operation at a time when the Beach Boys’ brilliant but expensive Pet Sounds (1966) was seen as a mistake. Around this time Capitol also signed two of the most significant acts of the period – Steve Miller and the Band – and managed to have a surprise success with the jazz musician Cannonball Adderley.
In 1968, Livingston formed Mediarts and he produced films – notably Downhill Racer (1969) with Robert Redford – and made records, the biggest success being Don McLean’s “American Pie” (1972). He became a president for 20th Century Fox and he wrote a book for teenagers, Ronnie Finkelhof, Superstar (1988).
Alan Wendell Livingston, company executive: born McDonald, Pennsylvania 15 October 1917; married 1955 Betty Hutton (divorced 1960); married 1962 Nancy Olson (one son, one daughter, two stepdaughters); died Beverly Hills 13 March 2009.
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